Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Experience

It can be difficult to write about the essence of anything, especially something complex in nature. How does one describe the essence of a human being for example? Does one focus on the biological realities? On the emotional, psychological or spiritual dimensions that constitute a human life? The same challenge presents itself when attempting to say something about what psychotherapy is at its core. The task feels as if it will be incomplete, reductionist, futile. And while that may be the case, I feel inclined to try to do just that: talk about the essence of psychotherapy.

People, of course, come into a therapist’s office for many reasons. Most often they are troubled by some sort of disturbing behaviors, worrisome thoughts, or intractable moods. Perhaps people feel lost in their lives, seeking direction and a greater sense of engagement with life and other people. And while we often focus on these problems as well as symptoms which reflect underling issues, the essential therapeutic mission is to enable a person to feel more like him or herself. To attempt to boil down the essential task of psychotherapy in a word, I would say that it is “freedom.” The task of psychotherapy is to help a person feel more free, more like what he or she takes to be his or her true self.

There are many ways in which a person learns to inhibit their true self. Through experiences beginning in childhood, during formative years, experiences sometimes traumatic and sometimes chronic or persistent, a person learns to protect him or herself. Perhaps the message in a certain family is that the child should not be exuberant or creative. Perhaps the environment the child grows up in is unpredictable or critical. The child, therefore, develops ways to protect him or herself by adapting to the environment. And in the process, those aspects of his or her essential nature becomes buried, covered over, protected.

The notable psychoanalyst and theoretician D. W. Winnicott called this process the development of a False Self. The False Self is based on compliance; the child evaluates the situation and determines what will make for the most conflict-free existence, one that is based on compliance with others wishes and expectations. This from Wikipedia:

Winnicott thought that this more extreme kind of False Self began to develop in infancy, as a defense against an environment that felt unsafe or overwhelming because of a lack of reasonably attuned caregiving. He thought that parents did not need to be perfectly attuned, but just “ordinarily devoted” or “good enough” to protect the baby from often experiencing overwhelming extremes of discomfort and distress, emotional or physical. But babies who lack this kind of external protection, Winnicott thought, had to do their best with their own crude defenses.

The False Self, a defensive project begun in early life, continues into the present. These defenses come in varied forms: I think of addictions in this light. Unconscious beliefs about oneself or the world (“people can’t be trusted” for example) form as ways of protecting and defending oneself. The development of a harsh inner critic, the Super Ego, provides another form of defense. This defense works by persecuting the self before someone else might; attacking the self before someone else can attack it as a way of having some sense of control and power. The work of psychotherapy is to understand this process of creating defenses both past and present and to find ways to deconstruct or unlearn it. Or put differently, psychotherapy allows the client to free that true self, to let it emerge into the light of day. The true self, emerging from its cave of protection, often presents itself in the therapeutic hour. It is through the relationship with the therapist, with the encouragement and focus on freeing the true self, that it may first reappear in the present.

It seems to me that at the heart of the psychotherapy experience is a spiritual experience. While there can be different ways of understanding the word “spiritual,” I think of it in terms of essence. A spiritual experience means that the person come into contact with his or her “deepest values and meanings,” what is essential about his or her life or being. Psychotherapy can provide that experience. By working in an intimate setting in relation to another human being, striving to understand the past that helped to create the False Self and free what is true and essential about one self in the present, psychotherapy is a spiritual experience. This experience is about fundamentally transforming one’s life, one’s sense of oneself, so as to be more of oneself. Seen in this light, it is a deeply moving and powerful experience for both client and therapist.

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